The Hemp Community Podcast

Cannabis and Politics (Part 1)

June 23, 2022 Season 2 Episode 6
The Hemp Community Podcast
Cannabis and Politics (Part 1)
Show Notes Transcript

In this Episode of The Hemp Community Podcast, we talk about the relationship between the British political establishment and the cannabis plant, including a summary of the history of cannabis policy in the UK.

Prohibition is a political choice and we offer context to the legislation that claims to control access to cannabis.

Whether you are a medical or recreational cannabis user, or something in-between, the same laws apply to all of us.

In a country with a multi-billion pound medical cannabis production and export industry, why is accessing cannabis medicine so difficult? When will cannabis be legalised for non-supervised/recreational/personal use?


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Episode 16 – Cannabis and Politics


 Hi there and thank you for tuning into The Hemp Community Podcast, brought to you today by the letters T, H and CBD.
 Today we’re going to be looking a look at Cannabis and Politics. In this episode I’ll be peering though the recent history of the UK political establishment’s relationship with cannabis, and how it’s ruining weed for the rest of us. 

Let’s start at the start; my name is Dan; I’m in my mid thirties and I run the hemp community. We’re a social enterprise in Edinburgh Scotland, and at the time of recording the Prime Minister is STILL Boris Johnson and Ukraine have just won Eurovision.

Those of you who have heard the podcast will probably share the view that cannabis has the potential to deliver a great deal of benefit to individuals, to communities, to industry and markets, economies and perhaps even our entire civilisation. Our species grew up on a planet that brought forth a living, breathing plant that produces prolific quantities of chemicals called cannabinoids. Many plants produce cannabinoids, but cannabis is quite simply the best at it. Cannabinoids are also produced by the human body, and when we consume cannabis we are temporarily adjusting the balance of cannabinoids in our internal endocannabinoid system. If you want any more information on these subjects, I recommend that you scroll through previous episodes and see what you can find! Alternatively, if you have any question get in touch using our email 

Now where was I…

Humans and cannabis go back a long way. Long before the summer of love. Further back than the Romans. Even the pyramids like childish in comparison to the relationship between humans and cannabis. For millenia we wore hemp clothes and wrote on hemp paper. We thatched roofs with hemp stalks, and boiled hemp leaves into teas and ointments. We played with the flowering tops of these weird plants and learned how to make medicine with our hands.

Some of you may be familiar with the story of how in the olden days, hemp production was mandatory because it was deemed so important for trade. The British isles have a generally mild climate so the only types of cannabis that grow well here are rugged hemp plants. Countless ships sailed the seven seas on rigging made from native hemp, taking merchants, mercenaries and medics all over the world. In the 1830’s a Irish/British doctor called William Brooke O’Shaugnessey travelled to India and found the locals using what he referred to as “Indian Hemp”. After speaking to the traditional healers about the extracts uses, and consuming some for himself, he immediately understood the potential value of this kind herb. O’Shaugnessey brought a supply of this Indian hemp extract back to blighty and began a revolution in healthcare.

Cannabis oils and other herbal extracts such as hashish, were common place for the rest of the century. Normally purchased from pharmacies, and recommended for a broad range of conditions including epilepsy, depression, anxiety, pain including period pain, sleep, vitality, vigour, vim and well you get the point. A wonder drug used even by Queen Victoria herself to ease menstrual pain. 

Drug prohibition is a 20th century phenomenon and we’ve gone through some of these details before in the episodes, but I think it’s worth bearing in mind where prohibitionist policies came from as a means of understanding why they don’t work very well.

Cannabis prohibition as we know it really started in 1930s America, driven by racial prejudice and facilitated by collusion between agents of the state and captains of industry. In the UK cannabis first became in illegal in the UK in 1971 with the Misuse of Substances Act. Prior to this legislation cannabis oils were commonly prescribed by physicians, and many people in the UK grew hemp in their gardens. As mentioned in previous episodes, so-called ‘recreational’ cannabis was associated with migrant communities, and tabloids drove post-war britain’s paranoia by writing stories about reefer men in Zoot-Suits and wide brimmed hats charming innocent young women with promises of fame and the ecstasy of cannabis intoxication. Of course it was mostly tabloid drivel, but it had worked in America and surprise, surprise it worked here too.  The 1971 Misuse of Substances Act took cannabis out of the hands of respected professionals such as doctors and pharmacists, and made the use of cannabis in any capacity a criminal offence, punishable with time in prison. The act itself was introduced by a Conservative Home Secretary named Reginald Maudling. Coincidenally, Maudling also served as Chancellor for a few years in the early 60’s and while he was in charge of the treasury he eliminated the tax on home-brewed beer, with the effect of making it legal. Not long after introducing the Misuse of Substances Act, Reginald Maudling was responsible for the state’s response to Bloody Sunday after which he retired following a series scandal relating to one his many directorships in the finance industry.

Relatively quickly cannabis prohibition was normalised and codified in law and British culture. Consumers of cannabis were criminalised and scientific research into the medical application of the plant was stymied, but of course cannabis itself never went away. In the 1970s and 80s, most cannabis consumed in the UK was in the form of hashish smuggled from countries like Afghanistan, Morocco and Lebanon. By the 1990s, domestic cultivation of cannabis became, and remains commonplace. Exotic strains and scalable hydroponic growing systems made high quality cannabis flower accessible to the masses. 
 In the early noughties, the UK had a thriving domestic cannabis scene and polling said 49% of the public were in supported the decriminalisation of cannabis, with only 36% against, and 15% who weren’t bothered either way. The Home Secretary at the time was Labour MP David Blunkett, who made the rather cautious policy choice to reduce penalties associated with possession and supply of cannabis, but maintain criminality. As such, Cannabis was reclassified to a Class C Drug; it was still totally illegal but you’d only do 2 years instead of 5 if you got caught trying to sell it. Criminal gangs saw this as a huge reduction in the risk associated with their trade and there was a boom in the rates of drug related crime. One of the main drivers for Blunkett’s policy was to reduce demands on the police, but in fact the reclassification of cannabis has only increased overall levels of crime. During this period we also see the introduction and rapid growth of the so called ‘legal high’ market, including various brands of dangerous synthetic cannabinoids like Spice. The Home Office’s response was to u-turn and restore cannabis’ Class B status.
 Famously, in 2008 the governement’s own appointed ‘drug czar’ Professor David Nutt recommended the legalisation of cannabis, amongst other recreational drugs and he was given the sack in return.

From 2010 Onwards, responsibility for cannabis policy fell to the Conservative politician and former Prime Minister, Theresa May. Under her tenure, the home office enforced its hostile environment anti-immigration campaign, and even found time to suppress a report recommending a policy shift on cannabis. Theresa May was accused blocking reform by the former Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg, and she is one of many Tory MP’s who have financial links to the pharmaceutical cannabis industry. Under her tenure, the Home Office began issuing licenses to produce and export medical cannabis products, despite maintaining that cannabis had no accepted medical utility.

In 2016, the Conservative Government introduced the Psychoactive Substances Act, which superseded the 1971 Misuse of Substances Act. Cannabis remained illegal, except for the small group of life sciences companies who happened to have licenses in place. Following enormous public pressure, in 2018 then Home Secretary Sajid Javid made an adjustment to the law that allowed cannabis to be prescribed as a medicine in the UK. You will have noticed that since this change in legislation, cannabis medicine has not been widely available, nor has the subject ever really managed to garner much attention barring the occasional activist grabbing a headline or minor celebrity touting the benefits of a balm or some other cannabis product.

Through the pandemic cannabis became more popular than ever, especially as UK society was locked out of the pub. Cannabis is arguably a better drug to stay at home with, ask any cannabis user, and yet there is seemingly no appetite for change, no momentum towards progress on the cannabis issue. A handful of patients in the UK, some 15 thousand by latest estimate, are in receipt of medical cannabis on private prescription, which represents fewer than 1% of the total number of cannabis users in the country. 

 Yet the government maintain the fallacy that cannabis is a controlled substance. It is quite ostensibly out of control. Fewer than 1% of the cannabis users in the country do so legally, and somehow we are to believe that the government has things under control. The same home office that issued licenses for cannabis arrests and licenses for cannabis export with the same pen.
 The most recent Polling shows that since the turn of the century, the number of people in support of cannabis legalisation has risen 52% , the number of people opposed to legalisation has reduced to 32%, and the number of people not bothered has somewhat typically stayed the same.

The UK Government’s lead opposition, the Labour Party haven’t indicated that they’d do anything different with cannabis policy, and so while we may be a couple of years off the next general election right now there is no reason to suggest that position will change. 

Cannabis prohibition is unpopular with the public, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean cannabis legalisation is a vote winner. There are only about 10% of the population who use cannabis regularly. Roughly 50% of the population have tried it one time or another, but only 1 in 10 do so regularly. This means the issue of cannabis legal reform is frequently kicked into the long grass because ultimately politics is a numbers game, and why rock the boat for a minority?

All over the world countries are easing cannabis restrictions, and yet the UK boldy tightens its grip and lets go of all reason and compassion. Harm from cannabinoids has increased exponentially in the last decade as the unregulated market has become contaminated with harmful Synthetic Cannabinoids. Meanwhile, there is a multi-billion pound industry right under our noses controlled by and for commercial operators. 

The legalisation of cannabis means protection for consumers. Tax revenue that can be used on essential services. New Jobs that people actually want to do. Opportunities for farmers to grow a sustainable, profitable crop. Happy families who can enjoy safe, cheap medicine forever. Doctors will have a whole new set of tools to care for us when our health fails. Hundreds of thousands of hours of police time that can be saved by letting people buy weed from a shop, legally. Jurisdictions that legalise cannabis also so reduced rates of adolescent uptake. American states that have legalised cannabis have seen a 6% reduction in suicides for high risk groups. 
 Best of all, legal cannabis doesn’t mean mandatory cannabis; for the majority of the country very little will change. We can negotiate a reasonable set of guidelines for individuals, communities and businesses to adhere to, and we have the opportunity to put public health at the centre of these negotiations. Rather than letting go of cannabis prohibition and handing control to market forces, I believe we have a responsibility to integrate cannabis into our society and institutions, with policy informed by the choices of cannabis users and the best evidence available to policy makers.
 What this looks like is taking into consideration the range of ways that cannabis users choose to consume, including smelly flowers, sugary sweets and silly glass pipes. We also need to remember that those types of cannabis products may not be suitable for everyone so there also needs to be room in the market for products that doctors and pharmacists have confidence in. We all deserve choices, and given cannabis’ relatively low risk profile it makes sense for regulations to be set proportionately. Perhaps cannabis policy is an area where laissez faire governance is the right answer.
 Looking around the world we can see dozens of examples of states and countries legalising cannabis for both medical and recreational use. The statistics coming in from these jurisdictions indicate net benefit to public health and public finances. Private cannabis companies are able to pay their way around complex regulations, so perhaps cannabis policy should manoeuvre towards light-touch regulation that is permissive, inclusive and beneficial to all parties. Let the farmers farm and the growers grow. Let the small businesses flourish and we can even let the big businesses in too. 

As  a society we have everything to gain from the sensible regulation of cannabis. It seems that in these chaotic times of plagues, conflicts and scandal we could all do with a sensible influence to steady our minds and attune our bodies. Cannabis is a wonder drug; it’s not perfect, but when it works it REALLY works and under prohibition we are already living in the worst case scenario.

How political change happens in the UK is very different than what we see in places like America. In the US, citizens have been able to vote in referenda that effect state level law. While cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, dozens of individual states, representing hundreds of millions of people, have passed legislation that effectively legalises cannabis, with the tacit permission of the fed. It is extremely unlikely, bordering on impossible that the UK would hold a referendum on the legalisation of cannabis, and if we did can you imagine the tripe the tabloids would dig up? 



Most of the big parties in the UK are hostile towards cannabis, and I’m sure that many of them don’t really know why beyond a vague sense of duty to the status quo.
 I’d like to conclude this episode of the podcast with a recap of one of my favourite political scandals of the last year. In an era of near constant outrage in every conceivable direction, in December of 2021 we saw reports emerge of a permissive drug culture among Westminster staff including prominent MPs. While the focus of the coverage was on the prevalence of cocaine use, some sources indicated that cannabis use was equally common, albeit a bit of a nuisance because of the smell.
 Despite a crop of bad apples in the houses of parliament, there are of course individual parliamentarians who stand up and get involved with cannabis policy, and push for legal reform to expand access to medical cannabis. But as politics in 2022 becomes ever more chaotic, how much progress can we expect to see on the issue of cannabis legalisation. Drug law is reserved to Westminster, so none of the devolved administrations are able to make any kind of change without treading on the Home Office’s toes. In the real world, families are having to pay for imported cannabis medicines to keep their children alive and yet the NHS is unable to move forward with the restrictions on research being what they are.
 In the next episode we’ll be talking about the current state of cannabis policy in the UK and how it is likely to change in the next few years. We’ll also be talking about how an Holyrood could regulate cannabis in a hypothesised independent Scotland.